Patrice Loubier

Yet More Notes...
...on SOME MORE NOTES on the Phenomenology
of Making: The Search for the Motivated

In this era of growing dematerialization of work, with the spatial and temporal barriers separating it from individuals’ lives becoming increasingly blurred, Klaus Scherübel’s works are exceedingly interesting in that they testify to this all-pervasive phenomenon in the light of his own activity as an artist. The substance of his exhibition SOME MORE NOTES on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated can be aptly summarized as a meditation on the notion of artistic production considered from the angle of what might be termed the contemporary dissipation of the studio.1

In fusing a photographic installation with ready-made objects and a video, Scherübel transformed the components of the exhibition into a unique, composite plastic statement, and also immediately posited the reflexive purpose of that ensemble by giving it a title that cites that of an essay by Robert Morris.2 This explicit reference to the text by the minimalist sculptor concerned about the question of process may seem surprising. Written just as Morris’s “Anti-form” period drew to a close, the text sought to demonstrate how Western art history has obscured the very reality of poïetic processes and work with matter—a reality that is in itself generative of forms. The article, in its heuristic depth, called for renewed attention on making, but this seems in one sense to be contradicted by Scherübel’s exhibition, because he showed completed works in which the material is indubitably harnessed to a type of iconographic production—and moreover, as part of a meticulously orchestrated installation. The contradiction, however, as we shall see, is only superficial, because the making that is mobilized here is not so much that of materials as of ideas—ideologemes linked to the figure of the artist and references to recent art history—and also that of the spectator’s experience. In this regard the title of the exhibition provides a clue: presented as “some more notes” on the “phenomenology of making” addressed by Morris, these works are intended, precisely, as additions to a text—a gloss on it that is meant to reinitiate reflection. For Scherübel is inviting us to speculate with him on a central concern of his approach: the work of the artist (and perhaps, in so doing, to reflect on our own “work” as spectators).

Indeed, this theme is announced, from the twofold perspective of the space of practice and the activity of the artist, by the titles of the three ensembles making up the exhibition: the Studio Doors, the photographic projections in the series Untitled (The Artist at Work) and the video diptych Studio Work.

Studio Door I and II adroitly introduce the subject, referring to the artist’s studio via the door that marks its threshold and governs access to it. Mounted on their bases and, paradoxically, made unmovable, the doors appear as vestiges dissociated from their function, cut off from the architecture and the spaces they previously connected to one another. But “vestiges” is perhaps not the most apt term, since these two objects are bereft of the aura and the marks that would be characteristic of a door that had actually served a purpose—like the one Joseph Beuys signed after it burned in his studio fire in the 1950s.

The doors chosen by Scherübel most certainly blur the image of the place that they represent metonymically. The first, all glass, calls to mind a store or office door, clearly departing from the private nature that one is tempted to attribute to an artist’s studio. The second, with its wire mesh, would not be out of place in a warehouse, or marking the entrance to a tennis court. Transparent glass or open-work metal: both doors let the eye see beyond, suggesting an immediately undecided border between the space of the world and the vessel of making—as if the studio were no longer that refuge where objects are produced away from the world. Lastly, the proximity of two doors suggests that the studio is no longer only one place, but a plural space. Out of this indeterminate nature of the place of creation looms the question of the artist’s activity in the three photographs making up the series Untitled (The Artist at Work).

Each of these images is displayed in an outsized format, on a large screen fixed to the floor, by means of a slide projector positioned amongst twenty or so chairs. Like all the works in this series—begun in 1993 with the collaboration of Marylène Negro, existing in various media and consisting of views taken by different photographers—these images are initially striking because of the paradoxical relation they produce between the scenes depicted and the generic title. The first shows the artist in a library, reading a book. In the second, he is seated on a bench beside a tennis court, wearing shorts and a T-shirt; beside him is a man with whom he has perhaps just played a match.3 The last one shows him in a liquor store, examining a wine bottle.

So here we have an anonymous figure, a “man without qualities,” we might say, captured in moments that could be drawn from everyday life: how are we to interpret, and where do we look for, exactly, this “work” that the artist is supposed to be doing? While reading in a library can easily be connected with the share of intellectual study inherent in artistic creation, sports and shopping on the other hand are suggestive of recreation, and of minor tasks of day-to-day existence. Is there some allusion here to the porosity between career activity and the private sphere experienced today by so many professionals? Are we to understand that the status of artist is felt as an identity in the fullest sense, as a calling, even?4 That the making is thus not separable from the being, that one is an artist all the time, and therefore always, and everywhere, “at work”? Or are the pictures meant to be taken at face value, leading instead to the conclusion that the work of the artist is not to have any—that he doesn’t work, or works very seldom, or else that trade and profession pertain to ideological constructs that these images are meant to open our eyes to? Or perhaps they reprise the “anecdotal motivations”5 whereby the artist makes good use of idleness or chance, able at any moment to be surprised by an idea?

One trait recurring throughout the series may guide our interpretation: the subject’s absorption.6 He is always concentrated or distracted. Seen in this light the photographs do not emphasize the act of making as such so much as they do the artist as the distinguished keeper of an “inner world”; that is, they are about the psychological, intellectual and therefore immaterial facet of his being that is the wellspring of his creative activity. These seemingly banal photographs would then intersect with one of the most mythical, resonant representations of the artist (the work springing from a sovereign act of inner conception, removed from all direct perception, pertaining to the invisible—the ineffable, even—and in so doing enabling ideological overinvestment). And yet, the statement accompanying the exhibition spoke of “making visible and deconstructing the myths that, to this day, surround artistic work.” Perhaps the making of art is demystified through its dilution into the ordinary grain of life, but at the same time singularized and enhanced by that almost enigmatic indistinction whereby it camouflages itself within that ordinary life, sidestepping any direct assignment.

That interpretation is hardly convincing, however, once one examines the tone and atmosphere of the pictures: considering the artist’s relatively impassive expressions, the complete absence of dramatic tension in the scenes, and the fact that the absorption we have just noticed is frequently akin to dreamlike distraction (Scherübel sometimes seems to have that forgetting-oneself gaze often described as the “thousand-yard stare”), we are instead drawn to the conclusion that the images depict not tense, productive activity, but a more-or-less fluctuating state of receptivity or attention. When Scherübel, in these photographs, is examining, watching, thinking or reading, that concentration is usually not accompanied by any enthusiasm, emotional engagement or particular intensity. The inwardness we have just discerned, of course, has no tragic or heroic connotation whatsoever, and the artist at work is in no way represented here by a flash of inspiration or the effervescence of impassioned endeavor.

Nothing earthshaking or captivating seems to be happening, as if these moments were excerpted from the most trivial everyday passages of time, drawn from the slackest water of the stream of life. Behind any representation of activity, these photographs seem to connote the passage of time at its most ordinary and universal. In the end, the work that they depict is perhaps that of the elementary attention to duration that is inherent in the experience of existing—and almost involuntary, considering the degree to which such attention is consubstantial with existence. In that sense the artist appears, through the thematic diversity of these representations, as a “witness without qualities,” but, as such, exemplifying the impersonal process of existing, inseparable from a perception of time, and of what Emmanuel Lévinas has termed “the there is.”7

This represented evocation of duration is concretely implemented and directed at the spectator in the very shape taken by his or her experience. Particularly interesting are the choices Scherübel has made in staging the photographs’ presentation. By arranging armchairs in row, facing the projected slides, in a room with dimmed lighting, the artist reconstitutes the effect of a cinema. But though he invites the spectator to come in and sit down as if in a darkened theater, it is to view the projection of a single, fixed image: there is no movement, no beginning of narrative. (The cinema, so frequent in contemporary art exhibits, here projects a picture as static as that of a canvas.) And unlike a film or video, whose duration assigns a length of time for the spectator’s presence, this frozen image prescribes no such duration: there is no plot, and nothing unfolding—except in the entirely literal sense of the physical phenomenon of the picture being projected. There is duration, but no ending: the staging orchestrated by Scherübel thus leads me to sense, with singular acuity, the time that I choose to spend there, perplexed, distracted or in the process of thinking, watching it.

Here, then, the magic of the darkened theater is summoned solely to operate in a loop, and the promise of absorption in the familiar gives way to an effect of distancing. Scherübel does not so much exploit the device of projection as cite it, as if to opacify it and ensure it is reflexively present in the spectator’s mind. There is therefore a subtle ambiguity to the presence of the rows of chairs and the screens: the device is at once entirely functional and exhibited as a representation of itself. If the three works seem, as noted above, to contradict Scherübel’s avowed intention for the exhibition, their positioning, on the other hand, leads the spectator to reflect on and perceive him- or herself in the act of observing.

Another experience of duration is literally on display in the video diptych Studio Work. In what appears to be the sole work perhaps showing a real scene of work in the studio, the artist is seen speaking at length on the phone, while walking in a room that is practically deserted.8 Through this telephone communication, studio work is presented in connection with the outside, but we learn nothing about that connection, because the video is silent. The myth of an autarchy of creation is therefore both suggested (Scherübel is alone in his studio) and abjured (the telephone suggests an activity involving a third party, offscreen).

The activity found there does not seem to be directly productive—or, to be precise, creative: it does not show the artist making a work of art. What “work,” exactly, is the subject here? Certainly it is not difficult to deduce what the image might be about: the phone conversation could be a negotiation in progress with a supplier or a gallery owner, explanations being provided to an assistant, or answers being given during an interview. Formulating these hypotheses highlights the indispensable activity of discourse and communication that prepares, surrounds, and frames the work of creation, strictly speaking. Thus Scherübel’s video might shed light on the intellectualization and tertiarization of artistic production.

That being said, because the lack of a soundtrack prevents any narrative from taking shape, it is the artist’s insistently reciprocating gestures and movement—which approximate a square—that necessarily hold the observer’s attention. And just as Bruce Nauman’s famous in-studio perambulation, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68), comes to mind, so too does a further reading of the expression Studio Work spring forth, which can designate Scherübel’s physical activity itself. That it may in fact be a performance designed to be recorded is suggested by the presence in the background of a lit floor lamp, turned toward the space unremittingly covered by the artist: the scene no longer pretends to be a reproduction of the everyday; it admits its self-awareness as a representation that includes the visual recording device, henceforth acting as a distancing process. The “work” shown here is thus ambiguous: is the scene meant to be watched as a didactic representation of a slice of life in the process of in-studio production, or does it itself have the status of a work of art? That ambivalence alone is enough to stake out the distance between Scherübel’s art and that of Nauman: contrary to the latter’s claim,9 the studio is no longer that space in which everything that the sovereign artist does is necessarily art: rather, it is clearly conceived of as a porous place, a node in the complex network of exchanges and activities that conditions the work of the contemporary artist. The visit of the exhibition thus ends here, on a silent image whose title opens up and complexifies its reading, leaving it suspended between the immediate obviousness of the ordinary, and the elliptical depth of referencing and the artifice of representation.

Studio doors that are those of stores or other public spaces, or the artist recorded in his most trivial everydayness: Scherübel’s iconography deflates, as it were, multiple myths associated with the figure of the artist that persist to this day. But at the same time, it causes one to reflect on the singularity of the artist’s profession, in which “making” can in some sense take form in the generic ordinariness of the places and circumstances of life. Moving back and forth between the realism of the ordinary and learned references, between chronicle and intertextuality, portrait and conceptual deconstruction of the figure of the artist, didacticism and dry wit, the works of Klaus Scherübel fascinate because of the power with which they hold and contain their cluster of meanings in a precarious, dynamic equilibrium.

In that regard, the exhibition SOME MORE NOTES on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated fully reveals Scherübel’s inherent skill at “making”: while the self-reflexive dimension of the works in SOME MORE NOTES. . . testifies at every possible opportunity to the conceptual bent of his art, by contrast, the title borrowed from Morris speaks to his interest in thinking that is fully embodied—not only in the image, but in the experience, utterly concrete, of the spectator who is made to work within it.

From: Klaus Scherübel. VOL. 13, Klaus Scherübel, ed., (Montréal: Fonderie Darling, Ghent: S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, 2011); translated from the French by Michael Gilson.

1 The work was shown at Fonderie Darling Foundry in Montreal from October 16 to December 7, 2008.
2 “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated” first appeared in Artforum in 1970, and was republished in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, MIT Press, 1993, pp. 71–93.
3 The work is fairly exceptional within the series, as the artist is almost always alone in the photographs.
4 On this phenomenon, see Nathalie Heinich, L’élite artiste. Excellence et singularité en régime démocratique, Paris: Gallimard, 2005.
5 This notion (motifs anecdotiques) is borrowed from Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Images de l’artiste. Légendes, mythes et magie : un essai historique, Paris: Rivages, 1987.
6 The term is here used in the sense employed by Michael Fried: the representation of a psychological state in which the subject appears so absorbed by thoughts or emotions as to be unconscious of the spectator’s gaze.
7 Emmanuel Lévinas, Existence and Existents [1947], trans. Alphonso Lingis, The Hague and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978.
8 Except for the three copies of the jacket created by the artist for Mallarmé’s Book, placed on the windowsill, and a Hobby-Painting leaning against a wall.
9 “[If] I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. . . At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” Nauman in Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere, “Bruce Nauman Interviewed,” Vanguard (Canada) 8: 1 (February 1979).